Five years after Buddhist teachers Christie McNally and Michael Roach received publicity for their bizarrely close—literally, they never strayed more than 15 feet from one another—and celibate relationship, the couple is now divorced and back in the news with the recent death of McNally’s new husband Ian Thorson near Roach’s Buddhist retreat. A delirious McNally and a dead Thorson were found in a cave in the Arizona desert after being expelled from the retreat. Back in 2008, David Plotz and Hanna Rosin attempted McNally and Roach’s practice of staying within 15 feet of each other for 24 hours. The original piece is printed below.*
Of all the relationship experiments ever tried—polygamy, wife-swapping, no-fault divorce, open marriage—the one described in the May 15 New York Timesmight be the most perverse. For 10 years, Michael Roach and Christie McNally have been together—for every single minute. The two never stray more than 15 feet from each other. When they eat, they share a plate. When they read, they share the book—the faster reader waiting for the slower to finish the page. When they do yoga, they inhale and exhale together. When “he is inspired by an idea in the middle of the night, she rises from their bed and follows him to their office 100 yards down the road, so he can work.” Oh, and did we mention that 1) they live in a yurt in the Arizona desert and 2) they’re celibate?
Roach and McNally, who are Buddhist teachers (though he also made a fortune in the jewelry business), consider their partnership a “high form of Buddhist practice.” Roach told the Times, “It forces you to deal with your own emotions so you can’t say, ‘I’ll take a break.’ “
Slate V Video: Watch David and Hanna’s day of closeness.
When we read about the couple—separately, because we would never read the newspaper together—it didn’t remind us of a high form of Buddhist practice. It reminded us of a particularly sadistic reality TV show or the “Love Toilet,” Saturday Night Live’s commode built for two. (“Why not share the most intimate moment of them all? … Because when you are in love, even five minutes apart can seem like an eternity.”)
But then we began to wonder if we could learn something from these Buddhist claustrophiles. * We’ve been married (extremely happily!) for almost 11 years, with two children to show for it. But the idea of enforced physical proximity seemed terrifying—not to mention logistically impossible. How could we stay 15 feet apart if one of us had to take child A to her school while the other walked child B to his? Or when David had a meeting in his office at the same moment Hanna had a meeting in hers across town? It also seemed masochistic: Given even the briefest reprieve from work or child care, we’re each of us out the door for a fortifying run, shopping expedition, or Starbucks jaunt. Which in turn led us to wonder if all the solo rushing around is its own kind of avoidance. Maybe we’re crippling our marriage by neglect. Maybe we’ve turned it into a tag-team business partnership in which we mechanically swap off work and kid obligations, each viewing the other as a shift laborer.
Inspired by Slate’s “Human Guinea Pig,” we decided to subject our marriage to the Roach-McNally discipline. We would follow their rules for 24 hours and see whether it would be an exercise in mutual mindfulness or protracted torture. We cut a 15-foot length of string. Then we warned the kids that Wednesday was going to be very weird. Here’s what happened:
David: I’m flossed, brushed, reading in bed. Hanna, who’s putting laundry away, decides she needs to walk down the hall to deposit some clothes in our daughter’s room, which means I have to get out of bed and follow her. Two minutes later, she does this again, and again I must get up. I utter some very un-Buddhalike curses. I can see why Roach and McNally moved into a one-room yurt—no hallways to negotiate, no kid bedrooms, no kids.
Hanna: “This is annoying.” “This is annoying.” “This is annoying.”
This is the love song that opens our 24-hour experiment in marital harmony. Right before I get into bed, random, misplaced objects will sometimes catch my eye. In this case, it was my daughter’s clean underwear on the floor and a gong on David’s dresser. David wants to get into bed and read his book, and I want to put things in their proper places. I win. Thus, naked, muttering, glasses-free David trudging half-blind behind me into dark rooms trying not to wake up the kids.
Five minutes in, and I can already see the problem with this experiment: It’s one thing to stay within 15 feet of your soul mate when you live in a yurt and do yoga all day. Not so easy when you have kids, two jobs, and a house with stairs. So far, this feels more like Lucy and Ricky or warring Siamese twins. But that’s OK, right? It’s like the few times I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to meditate. They say it takes a while before you stop fidgeting and running through your to-do list and just settle down and empty your mind. That’s why they call it a journey.
David: First thing in the morning, Hanna gets up and goes to the bathroom. As couples go, we’re not big on privacy, but there are limits. You’ll be relieved to hear there is no Love Toilet action at the Rosinplotzes. The rope is plenty long. I pace impatiently outside the door.
This is usually when I head downstairs to read the sports section and feed the kids breakfast, but not today. Instead I have to sit in our bedroom while Hanna gets ready. This turns out to be a revelation, but of the annoying sort. I learn that my wife has all kinds of creams and primping powders that I have never seen. She blow-dries her hair. She doesn’t get dressed just once—which is all I require—she gets dressed three or four times. One shirt tried and rejected. Pair of pants scorned. Five pairs of shoes examined. And then, even though she has already blow-dried her hair once, she goes and does it again! While our kids starve downstairs!
I usually don’t eat breakfast, but she does, so I glumly eat a few spoonfuls from her oatmeal. We briefly and futilely try to read the newspaper together, scanning the front page of the New York Times. I hate it.
Hanna: I never thought of myself as a “private” person or someone who keeps secrets from her husband. I do, however, want to put on makeup and fix my hair without David standing outside the bathroom tapping his foot and glaring. I have never much valued my two and a half minutes of morning mirror time. Now I feel like an angry grad student, defending sacred female space from the overbearing male gaze.
Breakfast brings a bit of unexpected peaceful togetherness. David can’t sneak off to read the sports section, and I can’t run around hanging up raincoats and sifting through mail. Instead we operate as a tranquil machine—one cooks the oatmeal while the other pours the milk. One brushes hair while the other puts lunchboxes in backpacks. We eat from the same small bowl, which is actually pleasant, and try to read the same section of newspaper together. Which is not.
David: Upon arrival at the Slate office, Hanna strikes up a conversation with one of my colleagues about the school our daughter and his sons attend. Since I had precisely the same conversation with him the day before, I am bored. I interrupt to tell her so. She ignores me and keeps talking. I try to leave, but Hanna won’t budge. I’m not allowed to break the 15-foot barrier. It’s the first moment when I actually understand the Roach-McNally project. Because I can’t leave, I have no choice but to listen to the conversation: I force myself to pay attention. I force myself to suppress my interior monologue about work I have to do and e-mails I must answer. Instead, I will myself to tune into her world. This discipline brings a reward, albeit a tiny one: a sense for those few moments that we’re deeply together.
Eventually, the conversation ends, and we settle into my office. She opens a laptop on the right side of my desk; I work on my computer on the left side. It’s incredibly lovely, for a while. We tip-tap away on our keyboards. She sits on my lap while we compose an Evite for a party we’re hosting. I need to photocopy a form, so we convoy down the hall to the photocopier and photocopy together. She has to go to the bathroom—not to complain, but she always has to go to the bathroom, like 10 times a day—and I wait, red-faced, outside the ladies’ room, trying not to look like a perv. As we photocopy and work, we chat about all the stuff we usually talk about only at night, the state of the children, our work anxieties, our morale.
Pretty cute, right? But am I unbothered by her invasion of my space? No! Reader: She talks to her computer. When she types e-mail addresses, she speaks them aloud: “Peter underscore Jones at gmail dot com.” And her phone voice! She spends a bunch of time on her cell phone interviewing sources for a story she is writing. Here are my notes from this dark period: “Hanna talking on the phone loudly. Loud loud loud loud loud. She talks too loud on the phone. Talk talk talk. Talk all the time. Talk talk talk. Always talking.”
Hanna: When McNally told the Times she followed Roach to his work yurt in the middle of the night, any modern working girl would have winced. It merely confirms our suspicions about their student/teacher, young-hot-girl/old-rich-guy relationship and makes us wonder about who is doing most of the humbling in this saintly duo. This is what I am thinking again as I follow David into his office this morning. I am an annoying appendage, like those wives who come in to show off new infants while everyone’s trying to work.
This karmic resentment I send out comes right back at me, leading to our first minor explosion of the day. Little did I know that the first thing my husband does upon arriving at work each morning is open the fridge and reach for a cold Fresca. It’s not even 10 a.m., and Mr. Farmers’-Market-Cruelty-Free-Meat-I’ll-Have-a-Decaf-Thanks is having his first soda of the day. Tragically, there is no cold Fresca because “who the hell forgot to put the Frescas in the fridge,” and “how hard is it to remember,” and I can actually feel him grow hot with anger because I am standing so close. Did I really need to know that the man I love is the office kitchen diva?
The petty toxins multiply. I engage in a conversation with one of his colleagues, a fellow dad at our school, about the latest principal flap. I keep this conversation going just a little too long. I know David is eager to get to his office, which is all the way down the hallway, and turn on his computer. But, to bring him down a notch, I make him stay and listen to this conversation. I know this is wrong. Submitting ourselves to the other’s will is not supposed to resemble a tug of war, but rather a soundless, tilting seesaw of recycled bamboo, slowly erasing our egos. (Him. Me. I. Her. We. Whee! or something like that.) Nonetheless, balance is restored. For the next couple of hours, David and I work peacefully together in his office. We do not share much psychic space but we do create a collegial work environment on a cramped desk, which is not nothing. (David, by the way, will write that I make too much noise—talking loudly on my cell phone or saying e-mail addresses out loud as I type them. This first part is called “reporting,” which is my job. The second part is delusional. Don’t believe him. We had a lovely time, and I even sat on his lap for a bit.)
David: After lunch we walk over to Hanna’s office at the Atlantic. She has to talk to her editor about the story she’s writing. The editor is a good sport and allows me to come in. It’s a joy to watch her at work. I see her best professional self, proposing, scheduling, clarifying, explaining—building a picture of the thrilling article to come. And my presence there contributes just what I’d hoped. I propose ideas. I bounce thoughts off her. Her editor and I agree about a major element of the story, and we change Hanna’s mind. She and I are engaged, alive to the same subject. At 3:30, I have to do a conference call, and she deposits me in the cubicle next to hers. We’re only 8 feet apart—way within the rules—but I can’t see her. It freaks me out. I’ve been looking at her nonstop for nine hours: Not seeing her for five minutes makes me jittery. What’s she doing over there?
Hanna: Back at my office, David gets to be the appendage. When we explain to my colleagues what we are up to, the women, especially, react with horror. “Yuck,” “Creepy,” “Suffocating,” “I would die after two hours.” One person mentions the Saturday Night Live “Love Toilet” parody commercial, which, when you watch it again, is really quite devastatingly apt, especially given how many times David has had to wait for me outside the bathroom.
Hanna: After a quick trip to the Foggy Bottom Farmers’ Market, we head off to pick up the kids at ballet class. (I am intentionally skipping the half-hour I waited around for him in his office while he and a couple of Slate boys watched soccer. Because this is an outrageous thing to do in the middle of a workday, and I want to be positive.)
David: When we return to the house in the evening after picking up the kids, we have our only rule violation of the day. I stop just inside the door to check my e-mail. Hanna keeps walking through to the kitchen—25 feet away—to get food for the kids. I look up and yell at her for breaking the barrier. She barks back: “You’re spaced out on your BlackBerry!” The point being, I guess, that it was my unmindfulness that caused the split. If I had been paying attention to her and to my family’s needs, I would have been heading to the kitchen, too. Instead, I isolated myself in the electronic world, fleeing to my BlackBerry island. My mental separation was the real crime, not her physical one.
David: By the time we finally get the children bathed and bedded, I’m exhausted, much more than on a usual day. It is draining to be watched all the time, even by your wife. Weirdly, we have nothing to say to each other. We don’t have any stories to tell each other about our day because we lived the same day. We don’t have questions for each other because we know the answers. We can’t lie and exaggerate and twist the day’s happenings to gain sympathy—the usual evening activity for most married couples, I suspect—because the other will call foul. This is where the Buddhism may come in. We lived in the moment: Being together all the time eliminated the need for the usual daily reflection because we already spent every minute of the day reflecting.
The experiment was not nearly as disturbing as I expected it to be. I hope that’s partly a tribute to the strength of our marriage—we find it easy to keep company with each other, thank God. I’m sure it’s partly a tribute to the routinized banality of our lives, which ensured no melodrama. On the other hand, I don’t think I could have made it another 24 hours. The next morning, as soon as I woke up, I grabbed the sports section, fled to the downstairs bathroom—one flight of stairs, 50 feet, and a psychological mile from Hanna—and locked myself in.
Hanna: At ballet, I notice that some harmony has snuck up on us. I have to admit that this day has not been creepy or yucky or suffocating. All in all, it’s been quite pleasant. It’s been admittedly exhausting to be watched all day, even if the witness is your beloved familiar husband. But the constant scrutiny has saved us from a layer of artifice. Many a married couple runs through the what-did-you-do-today ritual at the end of the day. This is the marriage’s last vestiges of the awkward first date. It often includes elements of theater, drama, self-consciousness, self-pity, and bragging. It’s often unsatisfying because it gets interrupted by the kids. Today, we got to skip this strained ritual. I know what David did today because I was there. This feels more like the happy, silent pauses at dinner after a day spent alone, together. We leave the ballet class for the car, holding hands. The next morning, I have to admit, I feel slightly disappointed when I wake up and David has already snuck away.
Correction, June 6, 2012: The editor’s note on the reprint of this articleoriginally stated that Ian Thorson’s death took place at Roach’s Buddhist retreat. It took place in the desert near the retreat.